For the moment, Belfast forgot that it is a grim crone of a city where wary British soldiers with automatic rifles patrol gray streets, and where a terrorist's bomb or bullet might be only a breath away. The city sags heavily under sectarian siege, but in featherweight contender Barry McGuigan it has a hero both in Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankhill. It seems fitting that it takes a fighting man to make ancient foes lift a mutual pint of ale.
McGuigan put this strange truce to the test again last Saturday night in quaint King's Hall, and it survived, just as the little Irishman from Clones, County Monaghan, survived the snapping fists of Brooklyn belter Juan LaPorte, a recent WBC world featherweight champion.
"I had always wondered, if a world-class fighter hit me hard, could I cope?" McGuigan said.
As he spoke, the 24-year-old fighter, wrapped in a dull-red robe, was resting in his dressing room. A large plastic shoe bag filled with ice cubes was on his head, another lay on his chest and his face showed the wear of 10 rugged rounds of boxing. Losers are supposed to look like this, but McGuigan was no loser.
"I found out what you're supposed to do when they hit you," he said. He paused, as though about to reveal a secret. Then he smiled and continued. "You're supposed to hit them back. The way to do it is to come right back and hit hard."
McGuigan put that concept to sound use in the fifth round, and again in the ninth. In both rounds he caught right-hand rockets, and both times as LaPorte, 25, pressed his attack, McGuigan unsettled him with a digging hook to the ribs.
And both times, in the $11 seats in the balcony, the Odd Alliance of Protestants and Catholics began to chant, "Here we go. Here we go."
This was McGuigan's first venture into the crucible of top-class combat. His record was 24-1 (the defeat came in his third professional fight), with only three bouts going the distance. But his victims included such nonentities as Vernon Penprase, Felipe Orozco and Clyde Ruan, so there was some doubt as to McGuigan's talent.
One skeptic was Howie Albert, LaPorte's manager. "My only worry," he said, "is that they steal it from us. If this wasn't being shown on CBS, I wouldn't be in Belfast. If they steal it, the whole world is going to see it."
LaPorte laughed at that. "The only way they can steal it is if they run out and pick him up every time I knock him down."
Albert weighed that possibility.
"Well, anyway, I warned them," he said. "I told them, 'Hey, you think you got problems with the IRA. You just wait and see what happens if you fool with me.' "
LaPorte's recent history gave the McGuigan camp fits when it came to deciding which LaPorte to prepare for. "We studied films of three of his title fights," said McGuigan's bemused trainer, Eddie Shaw. "Eusebio Pedroza [who beat LaPorte in a controversial 15-round bout in January 1982], Mario Miranda [LaPorte stopped him to win the WBC featherweight title in September 1982] and Wilfredo Gomez [LaPorte fought dismally and lost the title to him last year]. We saw three different fighters. We don't know what to expect."
In the past, LaPorte, who was born in Puerto Rico and brought by his family to Brooklyn when he was 7, either overtrained—he logged three months and 308 rounds of sparring for Gomez—or fell in love, which he does as naturally as he breathes. The problem of overtraining was solved when John Clancy, the son of veteran trainer and CBS commentator Gil Clancy, was brought in to oversee LaPorte's workout schedule.
When LaPorte arrived in Belfast 14 days before the fight he was as fit as the five Tennessee walking horses he keeps in Puerto Rico. And he was as quick as his boa constrictor, which, having bitten him on the hand five times, shouldn't be classified as a pet.
"No excuses," said LaPorte, who came in as the WBC's fourth-ranked junior lightweight. The WBA rated him No. 7. "I am in the best shape of my life. McGuigan is tough. I'll just have to go out and show him I am the better man."
Meanwhile, McGuigan—the WBC's fourth-ranked featherweight and the WBA's No. 7 had gone into seclusion at a Victorian boarding house in Bangor, a 30-minute drive northeast of Belfast. Daily he motored in to train at the city's Crown Boxing Gym, which is just up the stairs from a snooker parlor and only a few yards from a British Army checkpoint into the center of the city.
A Catholic married to a Protestant, McGuigan was born in Clones in the Republic of Ireland but recently moved north of the border. He takes no sides in the Catholic-Protestant conflict, eschewing both the telltale green of the Republic and the orange of Northern Ireland. He enters the ring under a blue flag adorned with a dove, a symbol of peace, and the Odd Alliance cheers as though it is the only flag that matters.
Hardly had the flag been unfurled Saturday night when LaPorte came out like he had something to prove. In the first round he peppered McGuigan with jabs and danced almost nonstop around the 20-foot ring. But McGuigan brought the crowd alive in the second when he went to work with a fury that has earned him the nickname The Clones Cyclone. It fits. McGuigan is forever moving in, fists flying from every angle. He bore in on LaPorte with his head down, like a Celtic Rocky Marciano. Except in the fifth round, when LaPorte had McGuigan holding on, and again in the ninth, when a right backed up McGuigan, most of LaPorte's punches aimed at McGuigan's chin found only the top of his skull. Even more of them missed, for McGuigan's head was never where it seemed to be. He came in behind a lancing jab, which set up a cruel left hook to the body. Then he slammed righthand bolts to the head.
"That last round he slammed me in the left ear and left me dizzy," said LaPorte after referee Harry Gibbs—the only man with a vote—had ruled against him 99-97. "That's the first time in my life I've ever felt like that."
LaPorte sat slumped in a chair in his dressing room, his feet propped up on a table. It was his sixth defeat in 31 fights, the third in his last four. He stared at his fists as if they had betrayed him.
"Something was wrong out there," he said. "I was ready, really ready. But I couldn't get off. Something was missing. You can write it, no more fighting. I'm done. That's what I'm thinking. It was my best training and I fought as well as I could."
Clancy began scissoring the wraps from his fighter's hands. "That McGuigan took some shots," he said. "He took some on the button. He took shots I never thought anybody could take."
It was the last grade in on McGuigan's perfect exam.
Outside, the Odd Alliance was shouting: "We want a title fight. We want a title fight." And they aren't the sort of chaps one would want to ignore.